The foundation of Colaiste Mhuire in 1856 was largely due to the philanthropy of a local retired brewer and landowner, James Hevey. Hevey’s last will and testament of 1835 contained the following bequest: “all my right and interest in the town and in the lands of Bryanstown for the support, maintenance and education of poor children of the parish of Mullingar”.
A site for the school was obtained from Lord Granard at an annual rent of £15 and building was completed, in 1856, at a cost of £5000.
The long gestation period between Hevey’s bequest and the opening of the school was largely due to the distressed condition of the country during the decade of the Great Famine. The Hevey Institute, as it was called, with its fine classical limestone structure surmounted by an Italianate campanile, must have been a great signal of hope in those post-Famine days. It remains one of Mullingar’s most aesthetically pleasing buildings.
The building was constructed in two sections: the West wing was a Collegiate or Classical School where boys were grounded in Latin and Greek to prepare for entry to St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth; the East wing was a general school where Hevey’s “poor children of the parish” were taught a mixture of academic and practical skills. The early curriculum sounds daunting: pupils were instructed in spelling, reading, writing, English composition, arithmetic, rudiments, proportion, geometry, trigonometry, linear drawing, mensuration, globes, navigation, algebra and mechanics. The running of the Classical School was entrusted to a priest of the diocese – the first Headmaster was Rev. Thomas Nulty, later to be Bishop of Meath – while the general school was given into the care of the Irish Christian Brothers. The first Superior of the general school was Rev. Bro. Richard A. Maxwell, later to become Superior General of the Order. Bro. Maxwell and four companions opened the doors of the school to pupils from six years upward in October 1856.
The school was popular from its inception: in the 1860’s there were already 400 pupils attending and a contemporary document tells us that “Several of the Boys have come from different counties, and some from South America”. These South Americans were, perhaps, Argentineans of Irish descent who were intended for Maynooth and the priesthood. The popularity of the General school greatly outstripped that of the Classical so that by 1889 there were 471 boys in the General with only 93 in the Classical. Eventually, the Classical gave way and the General school took control of both wings of the Hevey Institute.
Through the succeeding generations Coláiste Mhuire forged a distinctive identity in the town of Mullingar and surrounding districts. The school mirrored the advent and growth of cultural nationalism in the 1890’s and the successive decades. The Irish language and national games were central to this identity. The academic and classical disposition of the earliest period remained, nevertheless, strong. The middle and late decades of the 20th Century brought great alteration to Coláiste Mhuire.
The physical landscape was greatly improved: in 1959 a new Primary school was opened in the grounds, while in 1972 a Secondary School was built at a cost of £124,060. The original Monastery garden now plays host to a range of classrooms, a gymnasium and a recreational area. Recently, a €3million extension was constructed to the 1972 building.
The introduction of Free Education in 1968 brought sweeping changes to education in the State. Swelling numbers meant the recruitment of many more lay teachers to supplement the Christian Brothers. Indeed the decline in vocations meant that by the end of the century the school was entirely staffed by lay teachers, male and female. In 1994 the first lay Principal was appointed. The school is presently managed by a Board consisting of representatives of parents, teachers and the school Trustees.
The story of Coláiste Mhuire has been one of service to the communities of Mullingar and north Westmeath. The school has strongly marked the community it serves and has been itself shaped by events and change outside its walls. It has exercised democratic, Christian and progressive influences on the community: Hevey’s wish to bring educational opportunity in the context of a Christian education to all of the children of the parish remains the ideal of the college he helped establish. This ideal has been cherished by successive generations of teachers, lay and clerical, and pupils. Coláiste Mhuire maintains a sense of pride in the achievement of its rich past; it sees its future as a challenge to renew and invigorate its structure and culture.